Getting Better

SHARED BY STEVE ABBS

Round One

It is January 2007. Perhaps February. And I am in pain. Inexplicably, my left knee has bulged up to probably 150% of its normal size. About every second or third step down with my left foot brings a fresh shot of pain up my body. I cannot fully bend my left leg. Going down a set of stairs is a rather comical sight to watch, I’m sure, were it not for the pain. I have to practically slide down one or two steps at a time sideways, my left leg extended and my hands holding onto the railing.

Such was the beginning of my first extended episode of what was almost certainly clinical depression (undiagnosed at the time). 

Why was my knee enlarged, seemingly out of nowhere? The field of medicine tried to answer that question, but it would take nearly seven months before the true diagnosis was provided and real relief came.

  1. First there was a cursory x-ray. Simple enough—rule out if anything was broken. It wasn’t, and so I was given a stronger anti-inflammatory medication.
  2. A few weeks later, and the pain was still there. My physician ordered an MRI on my knee. This also showed nothing visually abnormal, and physical therapy was ordered.
  3. After a couple of months of physical therapy with no real relief in pain or decrease in swelling, another MRI was ordered, this time on my lower back. (The suspicion was that it might be akin to a mouse chewing on a telephone wire, where the connection doesn’t cut out until much farther down the "wire," per se.) This MRI also showed nothing wrong, and more physical therapy was ordered.
  4. After probably another month or two of physical therapy with still no true pain relief, routine blood work was ordered to see if anything turned up in that. (By now, it was July.) Sure enough, some of the counts came back a little high, and I was referred to a rheumatologist, who ordered a full battery of detailed blood work. 
  5. Finally, in August 2007, I was diagnosed with an auto-immune arthritis that was not rheumatoid and was not lupus. 

During these seven months, I sunk deeper and deeper into the undiagnosed clinical depression. Believe me when I say it was not a matter of me "snapping out of it" or "just choosing to be happy." My Sweetie tried all manner of tactics:  

"Do you want to play a video game?" (We’re big video gamers and love couch co-op.)  “A board game? You need to keep active and do something. Get your mind off this."

The answer was always the same: "No . . . I don’t know what I want to do."

I would just sit in the upstairs recliner. I’d force myself to do cursory household chores like cleaning the bathrooms, and I’d spend time with our children, playing as best I could. But that was a façade, for sure.

Finally, at her wit’s end a few months into this, my wife launched the initiative that spurred my recovery. "All right, you know what? We’re going to mural the basement. (I don’t remember much of my reaction, but I’m sure it was something that resembled a sleepy deer in the headlights.) 

“Huh?” 

“Yep, we’re getting active. Come on—up and out of the chair. You’re going to start drawing the friends from Finding Nemo on one of the walls, and then we’ll paint them.”  

Well, with that firmness, there was no denying her, that’s for sure. Reluctantly (I still didn’t really want to do anything), I trudged downstairs and got some reference material to start drawing Dory, Marlin, and Nemo on one of our basement walls.

I am very good at drawing things freehand, as long as I have reference material to work from. And so, slowly, as the weeks turned to months, I got excited by something creative. First, there was the Nemo and friends wall that you see here. But once that was done and out of the way, we moved to other walls in the basement. An entire wall is devoted to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Another wall is entirely other Pixar friends. Belle and the Beast feature prominently above the computer desk downstairs.

My excitement wasn’t sparked overnight. Some evenings, it was easier than others to convince me to go downstairs and either pencil-draw or paint. I still fell into periodic funks where I didn’t want to do either of those things. I had to take breaks. But creating murals in our basement was the activity that slowly pulled me out of my depression over the course of many months. I can still remember occasionally coming up with an idea for a character to include on a wall, feeling almost giddy about it that night, and then slyly letting it slip to our daughter the following morning: "I drew someone else on the wall last night." She was only six years old at the time, and she would gleefully go downstairs and search the walls to see who else was new. 

It sounds like a happy ending, doesn’t it? And, in a way, it is. But it was so very hard on my Sweetie. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t seek professional counseling during this time. But I can’t do anything about that episode now except look back on it as a learning experience. (And, of course, we still enjoy our basement murals.)

Round Two

Round two of my depressive episodes hit in early 2014. It wasn’t nearly as prolonged or severe as 2007, and it hit in a different way. I am a big fan of comic books—especially DC Comics. I was intrigued by a video game, Injustice: Gods Among Us, which featured a large gamut of DC Comics characters and was set up like a Mortal Kombat fighting game. I thought it would be a fun diversion and something I could work at. Instead, I was drawn in to the game to an unhealthy degree. I became both obsessed with getting better at the game and increasingly frustrated by the fact that I was not getting better.

It wasn’t harmless fun for me. I would print out reams of strategies and tips and read up about intricate combinations of buttons that supposedly would deal a lot of damage if entered in the correct sequence. I’d switch between different characters, mistakenly thinking that a change of character might be the answer. But the result was always the same. I’d get my ass kicked, even on a medium difficulty; I couldn’t execute even simple combos; I would become more and more frustrated with the fact that I wasn’t getting better; and I’d convince myself that more studying and "hitting it harder" was the answer.

Finally, after two months of this, during a spell when I was particularly distraught, my wife called me out on it and said, "What’s going on, hon? You don’t seem happy at all lately."

It was tough to admit at the time, but I faced up to the fact that the game was causing extreme frustration and mental angst for me. Matter-of-factly, she looked at me and said, "Maybe you need to not play it anymore."

And through sheer force of will, I decided from that point on that I could never play Injustice: Gods Among Us any longer. 

Not surprisingly, my mental state of well-being improved even within a few days. 

It sounds silly, doesn’t it? That a game could cause that much mental anguish. But I assure you, it was very real, and to this day, I cannot go back to that game in even the most superficial capacity. Indeed, my video game tastes have changed considerably. I look to video games now as more of a pure, fun escape and not something to challenge me to harder and harder degrees.

Round Three

I cannot go into great detail about my third clinical bout with depression and anxiety, but suffice it to say that, beginning in April 2015, I happened into a less-than-optimal work situation. My workload increased greatly and put me under tremendous, constant anxiety. I was doing the work of two or more people for close to six months.

I should have sought professional counseling help earlier than I did. By the time I found a counselor, the anxiety had progressed to a degree where it was obvious to everyone I worked with how stressed out and jittery I was.

Getting Through

At this point, I can say that I am much wiser for the three bouts of anxiety and depression that I have suffered through.

Three things in particular were helpful for me:

1. Creative Outlets
You already read about our Disney murals in the basement. We haven’t done any new murals in the basement in quite some time, but I have since found another outlet, and that is creative writing. After having a 2,500-word fiction contest entry published in a periodical in 2016, I received enough positive feedback from friends and family that I decided to keep writing that story. At this point, I have written an additional seven chapters and am officially writing a novel! It has brought me an immense sense of peace and has been tremendously therapeutic. 

2. Watch the Frustration Level
We are not going to be at peace all of the time. I know enough to not believe this pipe dream. But I also now know that leisure activities should be just that—fun, and for leisure. If something that is intended to be fun isn’t proving fun and is instead causing mental anguish or obsessive thoughts to start running around in my head, something is wrong.

3. Seek Professional Help
My counselor, Heather, has been a tremendous resource. She serves as a sounding board for my concerns and is more than willing to volley thoughts and advice back at me.

To anyone skeptical of seeking help from a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or the like, I cannot stress enough the therapeutic value in having not only someone to talk to but someone who can provide a professional, outside perspective. I do not know where I would be today if it were not for Heather.

Please, do not try to attack anxiety and depression all on your own. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength to admit that you need help—and to accept it.

Anxiety and depression are very, very real, and I do not kid myself into thinking that I am "cured" by any stretch. But I am wiser now, and I know the signs. I am better—much, much better—precisely for having gone through these bouts. They have strengthened me and made me a better person in many ways. And I know that I have Heather and a close network of friends to turn to.

I don’t have to go this alone.

 
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